A list of 21 moral principles has been adopted for use in one school system without serious challenge or violation of constitutional rights.

The subject of moral education in the schools is a matter of growing concern to many parents, teachers, and concerned citizens. As Christians should be the first to recognize, what is most important about any society is not its gross national product or its military might or its artistic triumphs. It is, rather, the kind of people it produces. That outcome depends largely on the moral and ethical principles honored in that society. Thus it logically follows that passing on the best of our ethical heritage to the young should be one of our foremost obligations.

Our educational forefathers knew, as we must know when we think about it, that unless the educated are guided by sound values, education can be more curse than blessing. The pre-Hitler German educational system is vivid reminder enough. Education can produce technically skilled totalitarians, or upper-class terrorists, or bored hedonists.

In the nineteenth century, McGuffey’s Readers were widely used in American public schools. As many know, they were suffused with not only moral, but religious themes and exhortations. As time went on, the schools gradually discontinued the Readers, seeing them not only as outdated, but as inappropriate for a pluralistic society and a professionally oriented school system. Nothing of a comparable nature replaced them; post-McGuffey students were exposed to little more than the haphazard moralizing that individual teachers might incidentally offer in the course of their daily routine.

How have we reached the point where education in traditionally accepted moral values is looked upon with so much suspicion? The road from McGuffey’s Readers to professional pride in a “value-free” education (even if it never was that) has been a by-product of many social forces: Darwinism. Freudianism, anthropology, scientism, and the prolonged decline of religious faith that is only now being reversed—all had a part. So did the erosion of a sense of community and community values, along with the growing stress on individualism, individual rights, and instant hedonism. So did the unceasing attacks upon home, church, and school as adequate moral mentors for our rapidly changing times. All of these developments combined to drain the vitality and much of the legitimacy out of moral education in the schools. The spirit of secular humanism became the spirit of the age, gaining indisputable control over public higher education and the potent mass media. That spirit equated progress with liberation from “stifling and outmoded” moral codes.

Considering the dominant intellectual currents in most educational environments, moral conservatives became understandably alarmed lest a highly permissive morality should prevail if moral education were reemphasized in the schools. They were intimidated by the more vocal, more modish, more liberal elements in most communities, forgetting that they were still a solid numerical majority in most school districts. Inhabiting a mass media—conditioned culture increasingly hostile to values dear to them, they even suffered some loss of confidence in the validity of their own cherished beliefs.

The sour fruits of this changing culture, however, were conspiring to revive that confidence. The soaring statistics on crime (including school violence), rape, abortions, illegitimate births, veneral disease, teen-age drunkenness, drug usage, divorce, extramarital adventures, pornography, as well as evidences of growing incivility, dishonesty, and irresponsibility, were causing concern everywhere. These cultural offspring even raised doubts among some of the morally “liberated” about how englightened their views really were. If these ugly phenomena were not indicative of serious moral decadence—pray tell, what would be?

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The moral condition and direction of our society, then, has caused religious and nonreligious parents alike to undertake a renewed search for ways to revive constitutionally the teaching of moral principles in the schools. Polls show that about 80 percent of parents want more emphasis on moral training in our public educational system. But they get it only timidly and ineffectually—if at all.

Some schools have opted for “values clarification,” in which students, through directed bull sessions, are supposed to discover for themselves what values to live by. Some schools have accepted this approach because it allegedly avoids indoctrination. (It usually doesn’t, of course. The discussion leader—consciously or unconsciously—typically will shape the questions or otherwise direct the discussion in ways that promote his or her value preferences.)

Let me be blunt: Given their meager life experience, their myopic vision and necessarily immature judgment, teen-agers lack the ability to formulate independently a sound value system. It is foolish and naive to expect them to. Too many students during these sessions will try to rationalize values that promote their freedom to do as they please.

Students need to know and have a right to know what thoughtful and responsible people over the centuries have learned about living. If we fail to tell them, we do them a profound disservice.

Efforts to place greater stress on moral education in the schools invariably confront two major objections: (1) Moral education is said to be the job of home and church, not of the schools; and (2) Critics ask: whose moral values, in our polyglot culture, will be taught? Upon examination, neither objection proves cogent.

First, a substantial minority of homes give their children only skimpy moral training—and not a very good example, either. Many other homes do a reasonably good job but have moral blind spots. And even the best homes, in these morally chaotic times, would welcome having their training reinforced by the schools.

As for church training, millions of children never attend church. Of those who go, many are not exposed to the full range of moral values and attitudes young people need.

Second, those who believe moral education is outside the proper domain of the schools overlook the fact that many public schools, with full community approval, already teach many moral values; don’t cheat, steal, or deface: do your work well; be responsible: be courteous and law-abiding; respect persons of other races, and so on.

But although some schools try to inculcate these values (in a rather slipshod manner), they fall far short of teaching the full spectrum of values and perspectives needed (which can be constitutionally taught) if children are to make the most of their lives and the greatest contribution to their society.

When parents and others raise the “But whose values will be taught?” objection, they have usually prevailed, because we have not specifically identified those principles that can be taught with the approval—indeed with the gratitude—of virtually all parents, Christian and non-Christian.

Following is a list of values and attitudes that have stood the test of time, which the Talawanda School Board recently adopted as guidelines for public schools in the vicinity of Oxford, Ohio. They were endorsed, after public hearings, without serious objection from any of the widely diverse groups in this heterogeneous university community.

1. Acknowledging the importance of self-discipline, defined as the strength to do what we believe we should do, even when we would rather not do it.

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2. Being trustworthy, so that when we say we will or will not do something, we can be believed.

3. Telling the truth, especially when it hurts us to do so.

4. Being honest in all aspects of life, including in our business practices and in our relations with government.

5. Having the courage to resist group pressures to do what we believe, when alone, we should not do.

6. Being ourselves, but being our best selves.

7. Using honorable means, those that respect the rights of others, in seeking our individual and collective ends.

8. Conducting ourselves, where significant moral behavior is concerned, in a manner that does not fear exposure.

9. Having the courage to say. “I’m sorry. I was wrong.”

10. Practicing good sportsmanship. Recognizing that although the will to win is important, winning is not all-important.

11. Maintaining courtesy in human relations, including the courtesy of really listening to others.

12. Treating others as we would wish to be treated; recognizing that this principle applies to persons of every class, race, nationality, and religion.

13. Recognizing that no person is an island, that behavior that may seem to be of purely private concern often affects those about us and society itself.

14. Bearing in mind that how we conduct ourselves in times of adversity is the best test of our maturity and our mettle.

15. Doing work well, whatever that work may be.

16. Showing respect for the property of others—school property, business property, government property, everyone’s property.

17. Giving obedience to law, except where religious convictions or deeply held moral principles forbid.

18. Respecting the democratic values of free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and due process of law. Recognizing that this principle applies to speech we abhor, groups we dislike, persons we despise.

19. Developing habits that promote physical and emotional health and refraining from activities destructive of those ends.

20. Abstaining from premature sexual experience and developing sexual attitudes compatible with the values of family life.

21. Recognizing that the most important thing in life is the kind of persons we are becoming, the qualities of character and moral behavior we are developing.

None of these principles or attitudes conflict in any way with the values cherished by evangelical Christians. Far from being in conflict, they either incorporate values that have biblical roots or they express democratic principles that are fully shared by thoughtful Christians and non-Christians alike. Indirectly, they could strengthen youngsters to resist many current temptations that alarm their parents.

Nor are First Amendment problems involved. These values can be taught without violating the “establishment of religion” clause; they are of the same general character as values now taught in schools without raising constitutional challenges. While the proposed values are compatible with traditional Christian views, no one of them is uniquely Christian.

How can these principles and attitudes be taught? I do not pretend to have all the answers; experienced teachers of elementary and secondary education would be better qualified to answer.

But a few suggestions may not be amiss. Biographies that portray people whose lives manifest many of these values can be assigned. Students could write themes about occasions when people they know violated one or more of these principles, and comment on the consequences that followed. Or they might write about persons—perhaps their parents—who concretely exemplify by their lives adherence to one or more of these principles. They might be asked to identify those principles they most admire in others and those they feel a special need to incorporate into their own lives. They could be asked to take home a copy of the principles and attitudes, talk them over with their parents, and then report back on the ensuing conversations. (A “consciousness raising” exercise for the home is of crucial importance in an effective program of moral education.)

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Each principle or attitude should be displayed on the blackboard for a week or so. Where possible, an epigram that capsulizes or memorably illustrates one of these principles could also be placed there: “An ounce of apology is worth a pound of loneliness”; “It is easy to tell a lie—but it is hard to tell only one lie.” The application of these principles to concrete circumstances important to students at the stage of life in which they find themselves could be threshed over in class. Finally, students should be made aware of the reasons that underlie these principles, since many parents who believe in them are not very articulate or cogent in defending them.

Schools should encourage full and free discussion of these principles and attitudes. Dissent should be welcomed; where defensible values are involved, open discussion can only strengthen their case. It is only when values cannot survive close examination that free speech need be feared.

It may be argued that everyday role models are more important in instilling moral values than any amount of formal instruction. While all would agree, there are several factors pertinent to that truth. First, schools already have faculties possessing the moral strengths and weaknesses common to all. Generalized exhortations about their responsibility as moral exemplars will not transform them into significantly superior models. But spelling out concretely a series of valid moral principles (and attitudes) to be stressed in the schools will produce some of that same salutary “consciousness raising” among the faculty that is needed in many homes. Reflecting on these principles, as schools plan and carry forward a moral education program—aware that colleagues are reflecting on them, too—teachers will experience subtle internal and external pressures to conform their conduct more closely to them. To some degree, students will be evaluating their teachers’ behavior by those principles—and teachers will know this is happening. Faculty behavior will not be morally transformed by all this, but the process may help bring out the best in these people. It will produce no moral miracles, but it can be a force for good—and that is all we can hope for. In addition, sensible counsel is a useful supplement for even good role models. Certainly parents have always believed so.

We should not hesitate, incidentally, to concede to the young that these 21 principles are widely violated in our society and that none of us fully adheres to them at all times. But it should be made clear that these are the guidelines by which good people strive to live, and that they are at their best when they live up to them.

Whatever their outward show of independence and (often) rebelliousness, young people want to know right from wrong—especially if persuasive reasons are given for moral beliefs, rather than “It’s right because we say so.” Youngsters need well-defined standards of right conduct, even if they are going to resist them. Few things are more troubling or unsettling to teen-agers than not to know right from wrong. If we can’t answer all their questions, we can point to general principles that are enormously helpful to them as they make decisions.

No knowledgeable Christian believes that moral principles, no matter how valid they may be, are adequate for salvation—or even fully adequate for the well-being of society. But religious teachings cannot intrude into the classroom under our constitutional system. Since they cannot, we should do what can be done in the schoolroom to help all children acquire values that will be useful to them and to society.

I believe Christian parents in every community should take the lead in inaugurating moral education programs in their schools. They would be not only doing their own children a favor, but giving unfortunate children, from morally deficient homes, a helping hand they badly need. If this is not an appropriate undertaking for responsible Christians, I wouldn’t know why.

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